The White-Washing of MLK’s Legacy
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most renowned civil rights leaders. From elementary school to high school, students are taught that Martin Luther King stood for unity, change, and peace. His “I Have A Dream” speech is often used in the present-day to show the progress since the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. For many people, this speech stands as a defining moment for Martin Luther King while in actuality Martin Luther King was quite a radical. After his death, the power of his legacy and the change he helped incite created a need for many parts of his life and personal views to be hidden from the public. Despite what we are led to believe, Martin Luther King Jr. was a radical leader who was opposed by many. Like most civil rights leaders, he wasn’t recognized until years after his death and this was only done after creating a narrative that satisfied the needs of the American government.
The “I Have A Dream” speech is usually quoted for its powerful words and sentiments to unite white and Black Americans. While many were inspired by the speech, it placed a target on Martin Luther King’s back. After seeing the impact the speech had on the American people, FBI official William Sullivan named Martin Luther King Jr. “as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation.” This led to the constant surveillance of King and his associates. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover feared that Dr. King would spread the idea of communism. In “MLK/FBI”, a documentary by Sam Pollard, it depicts how the FBI investigated and terrorized Martin Luther King. They worked to find evidence that could be used against him so that he would either be arrested or lose credibility in the Black community. During this time there was a letter sent to Martin Luther King by an anonymous FBI agent telling him to kill himself. Agents broke into his home and office in order to bug it. They hoped to find information that would point towards Martin Luther King being a communist.
Speculations can be made on why certain information was hidden from the public. One of the strongest of these is that the government was afraid that if such a powerful leader such as Martin Luther King Jr. was known to be a radical rather than a peaceful leader as everyone was led to believe, then people would lean towards the radical side. Another reason is the FBI didn’t want to be held accountable for the harassment that Martin Luther King was put through. This harassment was fueled by racism that they attempted to hide by saying it was a fight for democracy. The government used Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality as an excuse to make him out as a communist. On several occasions, Martin Luther King denounced these allegations but with no other usable evidence to use against him, the FBI tried to push this narrative.
Since his death, Martin Luther King’s legacy has been used to show the progress made since the Civil Rights Movement, however, it has also led to the minimization of today’s racial issues. White people quote Martin Luther King as a way to show the completion of his plan despite economic segregation, systemic racism, and constant microaggressions Black people have had to experience. Outside of the African American community, it is easy to overlook the daily struggles and racism that still persist in society. Despite what people like to believe, racism was built into every institution of the American government and can’t be solved by the words of one man or even the sentiments of another.
As a Black American, Martin Luther King’s legacy highlights the change that is still needed. The words of Dr. King are not to be used as the final goal but instead as a starting point. The eagerness to accept Dr. King’s dream as the final destination shows that we are in fact far from enacting real change. It’s not about rectification, forgiveness, or forgetting. None of those things can be achieved and if you think they can, you are greatly mistaken. The takeaway from Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy is to hold others accountable. Sadly, it is the job of Black people to continue Dr. King’s legacy even though the change has to come from white Americans. Martin Luther King’s legacy will live on and continue to be celebrated. The only thing that we can hope for is that it isn’t simplified further to please those that are uncomfortable with the subject of racism -- those that aren’t affected by it.